Elspeth Barker obituary

Journalist and author whose darkly funny 1991 novel O Caledonia has found its place as a Scottish classic

Elspeth Barker’s first and only novel, O Caledonia, was once described by the novelist Ali Smith as “the best least-known novel of the 20th century”. But in 2021, 30 years after its first publication – and a year before the author’s death at the age of 81 – it was reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and found its place as a modern classic of Scottish literature. The book has achieved international success and will be published this September by Scribner in the US and is set to appear in France, Spain (and also in Catalonia), Estonia and Italy.

The novel tells the glittering, darkly funny story of the short life of a young girl, Janet, who lives in a bleak Scottish castle, calls her cats subjunctives, keeps a jackdaw as a pet and learns poetry by heart. The only bright spot in her life is her risque Cousin Lila, whose room rattles with empty whisky bottles and smells of Schiaparelli’s Shocking and Craven A cigarettes.

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